Hotel Mumbai: Bloody and United, by David Bax
At the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, the staff are encouraged to adopt a “hospitality plus” attitude. The result is a warm atmosphere for the wealthy guests and an exacting one for the employees. One such worker, Arjun (Dev Patel), is nearly sent packing for forgetting his uniform shoes. Lucky for him, his sympathetic boss (Anupam Kher) lends him a pair (a couple sizes too small, as it turns out). What neither of them, nor anyone else in the hotel, know is that, on this day, they’ll be tasked with going well above the service they usually provide their guests when a team of Islamist militants from Pakistan take the hotel hostage with the intent to kill everyone inside. In Anthony Maras’ grueling but determinedly hopeful Hotel Mumbai, we see not just the care the staff takes of its guests but the humanity that flows in all directions in the face of unimaginable terror.
On November 26, 2008, a series of coordinated attacks were carried out across Mumbai, lasting for three days. For the first 24 hours or so of the attacks, much of the world’s attention was focused on one hotel, known simply as the Taj. Hotel Mumbai fictionalizes and composites characters such as Patel’s Arjun, a Russian businessman named Vasili (Jason Isaacs) and a wealthy couple, David and Zahra (Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi), who are traveling with their infant child and their nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). Sally and the baby are stranded in the hotel room when the violence begins, with the rest of the core cast in the hotel’s restaurant. Maras painstakingly details the efforts to get these men and women, along with hundreds of others, to safety and to reunite those separated, hopefully with as many of them still alive as possible.
Hotel Mumbai, in its goals and its aesthetics, recalls certain films by Paul Greengrass, who has built a reputation for white knuckle reenactments of real life horrors (Bloody Sunday, United 93, Captain Phillips). Just like those movies, this one mines dramatic tension, right from the very beginning, from the fact that the viewer has some knowledge of what’s about to happen. In this way, the comparison between Maras and Greengrass is apt but also potentially misleading. If Greengrass’ most recent effort, the self-satisfied, manipulative 22 July is top of mind for you, then you may worry about Maras’ motivations and taste. But fear not. Hotel Mumbai is very much like the best of Greengrass’ films, clear-eyed and unflinching with a constant eye toward human life and goodness.
That compassion gives the carnage a weight that turns Hotel Mumbai into, in the most pure sense of the term, a horror movie. Maras’ ability to illustrate, without exploitation, the randomness of fate is gut-wrenching. He robs us of the surety we subconsciously feel about the likelihood of movie protagonists to live or die. Here, even when someone is steps from freedom, we can’t be confident of their safety.
Hotel Mumbai often has the tension of an action movie (Arjun’s footwear predicament certainly brings Die Hard to mind) but, wisely, none of the thrills. There are what you might call action beats or set-pieces, like David dodging bullets by hiding behind a room service cart or a shootout between police who have entered the lobby and terrorists at the top of a grand staircase. But there’s no rooting for good guys or against bad guys. Like the men and women, guests and employees alike, trapped in the hotel, the stakes are boiled down to mere survival. Triumph is pointless; you just want them to get out with their lives.
That’s Maras’ most commendable achievement. By placing the goalpost at the instinctual, he reduces—for the audience as well as the characters—all philosophical, political and other allegiances to flat lines on the horizon. Vasili’s loud, vulgar phone conversation in the restaurant before the attack; Zahra and David’s casual, unappreciated privilege… All of it ceases to matter very quickly when the first gunshots sound. As in United 93 or Clint Eastwood’s Sully, Hotel Mumbai argues that heroism and valor are actually common traits. Most of us simply remain lucky enough not to have had to draw on them.